When I was first introduced to Chardonnay, it was described to me as the “cheerleader” of wine grapes because it will do anything that you want. The analogy may be dated during the era of “me too” but the fact remains that that Chardonnay will take on a diverse personality depending on where it’s grown and how it’s vinified. The ubiquitous Chardonnay is found from the cool limestone soils in Chablis to the valley of Puglia.
Chardonnay is easily influenced, taking the personality of its climate or its wine cellar. The styles therefore range from very light and crisp to very rich and fruity, although it is almost always dry. It responds well to malolactic fermentation, lees ageing, and oak, but may also be aged in stainless steel for a leaner style. From oakey aromas with baked fruit to steely and mineral, there is a style for every palate.
The warm, sunny climate in Northern California allows the fruitiness of the grape to reach its full potential. Stylistically the producers here tend to use a heavier hand with oak and malolactic fermentation. The generous texture from the MLF (which also gives the wine its buttery aroma) plays off of the enhanced texture and aroma of the new oak. Napa Chardonnay may classically represent one of the richest styles of white wines on the market, but a leaner, more focused style is emerging from “New California” producers that emphasize a lean, focused style from cooler sites and with less oak.
Aroma: Baked pear & apple, topical fruits, vanilla, coconut, baking spices, butter, popcorn.
Palate: Full body with elevated alcohol and moderate to moderate plus acidity.
Food pairing: The butteriness of California Chardonnay matches cream sauces very easily. Chicken with a butter sauce would work well, as would lighter grilled meats.
Chablis is technically a part of the greater Burgundy wine region in France, although the wine in the glass may be closer to the intensely mineral, high-acid Chardonnay-based wines made in nearby Champagne before they become sparkling. The marginal climate is prone to frost and hail, which often results in lower yields. Here Chardonnay less sun and heat to produce the ripe fruit aromas found in California. Rather, the wines are crisp and clean with oyster shell and tart lemon notes. Some compare the limestone soils with fossilized seabeds to the saline, oyster shell aromas found in the wines. Chardonnay from Chablis may receive extra texture from extended lees ageing, which gives the wines a creamy texture that softens the hard angles. Chablis is a sommelier favorite that pairs very well with with many foods, especially seafood.
Aroma: Tart lemon, limestone, seashell
Palate: Lean and crisp, driven by very high acidity.
Food pairing: The saline quality of the wine compliments lighter seafoods and shellfish, such as oysters. Chablis is a good choice for salad dressings, as the acidity of the vinaigrette is matched by the wines. The acidity can also balance rich cheeses, adding balance to the dish.
Côtes de Beaune
The Chardonnay of Côtes de Beaune represent the most prized example of the wine and reach some of the highest prices for white wine in the world. The Grand Cru vineyards combine the richness of California with the minerality of Chablis. Slightly warmer than Chablis but cooler and rainier than Napa Valley, the wines develop a pear and apple aroma that is complimented by the vanilla and toast aromatics from the new French oak. MLF is also found here, although perhaps to a lesser degree than the typical California style. The rich mid-palate is balanced by bright acid, which is the backbone of longevity in the region; wines from the Côtes de Beaune can last decades, taking on a complex nutty aroma.
Aroma: Tart yellow and green apple, lemon, vanilla, toast, stony minerality, mushroom, cream, white flowers
Palate: Moderate to full body with elevated acidity and a long finish.
Food pairing: “White Burgundy,” or the whites from Côtes de Beaune are very food friendly. They are a classic pairing for truffle and mushroom dishes, but can also be paired with dark-fleshed fish and white meat. Creamy soups are also an easy pairing. -AT